Dr and Mrs Wilson, honoured guests, colleagues, mums, dads, proud grannies and granddads but as always, most especially boys and girls, on behalf of the Board of Governors of Carrickfergus Grammar School I welcome you to our Prize Distribution for the academic year 2015/16, an evening when we look back at the life of the school and the achievements of our pupils, your children, over the last 365 days.
Speaking of the choir, those of you who have attended previous Prize Distributions will have noticed a break in tradition, for this year the evening began, rather than ended, with the school Song.
Richard, I am delighted to welcome you and your wife Liz, a senior teacher at Hunterhouse College Belfast, and I am deeply grateful for you both being here.
Now that our school is well over the half-century mark, I am keen that on evenings like this our former pupils come back to motivate the current crop of talent, to show that those who walked these corridors before you, boys and girls, have gone on to very handsome achievements, just as you can. In recent years we have been happy to reconnect with former CGSers Hugh Black, prominent business man and Centre Manager of Victoria Square; Richard Hewitt MBE, former commander of the parachute regiment which stormed Sadaam Hussein's palace; Dr Alison Montgomery, Senior Policy and Research Officer with the Northern Ireland Commission for Children and Young People; with former Head Boy Richard Carberry, now a Forensic Risk Consultant with KPMG; and last year with Sonja McIlfatrick, Professor of Nursing at the University of Ulster.
And our Guest of Honour this evening is no exception, for Dr Richard Wilson was born and raised here in Carrickfergus, he attended the Model Primary School in the 1960s and was a pupil of Carrickfergus Grammar from 1970 to 1977. He then went on to study at Queen`s University Belfast where he graduated with Honours in Biochemistry in 1981 and subsequently qualified in Medicine in 1986 with Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery and Bachelor in the Art of Obstetrics.
Following posts in the Royal Victoria Hospital Dr Wilson specialised in Psychiatry, gaining the Diploma in Mental Health in 1990 and Membership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 1992. As a young doctor Richard became increasingly interested in the mental health of children and young people, and in 1995 he took up his first Consultant post in Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. As a school Principal who has seen at first hand the increasing prevalence of mental health problems amongst our teenagers I am only glad that twenty years ago Richard had the foresight to begin to address this crucial issue. He is currently Lead Clinician for the Northern Trust Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service – or CAMHS as it is better known - which now provides for a total population of around 480,000.
In 2015 Dr Wilson was elected Chair of the Child and Adolescent Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Northern Ireland and has been at the forefront of improvement in not only our regional CAMHS Services, but also in those across the whole of the UK. Richard, I know that you believe that the mental health of our young people is everybody`s business, and I thank you for the expertise, realism and humanity which I have always seen in your work. Dr Wilson – welcome back to school.
As a pupil of the 1970s, Richard was influenced by someone whose life's work is in the very walls of this building and who sadly passed away this summer at the prodigious age of 91 – none other than Mr Hugh Jamison, the second Headmaster of the school.
I am delighted that Mr Jamison's wife, Joan, has been able to join us this evening along with your daughter Mrs Linda McAllister, now a teacher at Oakfield Primary School and mum to two smashing pupils Rachel and Lauren in Years 11 and 13.
A founder member of the school, Mr Jamison was one of only three teachers to be appointed just before the Grammar opened its doors in September 1962, and there is no doubt that the energy, commitment and professionalism which he brought to his founding role were key factors in establishing our School in the Borough.
As Richard says, Mr Jamison was Deputy Head from 1963 to 1977 and then took up the reins as Principal until his retirement in 1990 after 28 years of dedicated service. During his headship Mr Jamison oversaw a crucial period of expansion in the school and in an era long before the advent of social media he demonstrated the value of connecting with others for a common good by establishing our Parents' Association and the Carrickfergus Grammar School Trust Fund, both of which endure to this day. In fact the latter was considerably boosted last year by the generous donation of monies from the Dr WM Loughridge Trust along with the Dr Loughridge Shield itself, given each year to a high-achieving pupil entering medical school. What with this being received by Phillip McCullough, who is leaving us to study Medicine at Queen's, with past pupil Dr Richard Wilson as our guest speaker, and with your granddaughter Lauren also receiving a prize this evening, Mrs Jamison, I have the strongest feeling that our past is merging seamlessly with our hopes for the future.
Education might have changed in the decades which have passed since Mr Jamison took his first History lesson, but the basic principles which he embodied - service, steadfastness and dignity – remain timeless examples to us all. Joan, you have our heartfelt sympathy, but I have no doubt that you also sense our gratitude and real affection for one of nature's gentlemen who gave so much to this school – thank you for joining us this evening.
The novel begins…
He then turns to the class: "Girl number 20," says Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square finger, "Stand up!" Girl number 20 stands up, blushes and curtsies. Girl number 20 is called Cissy Jupe – her father trains horses in a travelling circus and Sissy has tended horses from her babyhood, so she knows their look, their sound, their smell, their individual personalities…and then Mr Gradgrind says to girl number 20. "Give me your definition of a horse." But Cissy can't give one, you may as well ask her to define her whole world, so she just blushes, fails, and sits down.
So Mr Gradgrind turns to his star pupil, a boy called Bitzer.
Of course the truth is that girl number 20 - Sissy Jupe - knows everything that there is to know about horses, they are her life - and Bitzer wouldn't know one if he met one in the playground – he can just give the data, the cold dictionary definition that shows his acquaintance with fact, but also displays his ignorance of truth.
Any teachers in the audience, and certainly my poor colleagues sleeping here behind me, must sometimes think that we are back in the 19th Century – for to the government it seems that education is only valuable if we can measure it in cold data, percentages, residuals and three year trends.
But there is certainly one teacher here this evening who sees through all of that nonsense – she sees right through the whole notion of measuring children like Lego blocks – she just doesn't speak that language – and that person is Marcella Lively, who for the first time in 43 years is sitting down there with you rather than up here with us, for Marcella retired as Vice Principal at the end of last year. And Marcella would have been in Sissy Jupe's corner, not Bitzer's – she wouldn't have been remotely interested in how Sissy defined a horse, but she would have been interested in what defined Sissy.
I've often said that every child comes into school with two bags – one you can see, the one containing books and pens and rulers – the other, the one you can't see, is much more important, for it contains hopes, dreams, worries and anxieties.
Our friend Mr Gradgrind liked hard facts, remember, and there is one hard fact that Marcella has never forgotten in her 43 years of service to this school – the fact that what matters most, in fact the only thing that matters, is human beings: boys and girls, no matter how much the Department of Education has wanted us to accept that you are mere economic units in the Programme for Government, Mrs Lively and her Heads of Year know that you are so much more important than that, because you're you!
Marcella was appointed to the school by Mr Grainger back in 1973 as a 23 year old part-time Art teacher.
As a former pupil said "Mrs Lively is still talked about by my classmates in the fondest of terms – absolutely everybody I know respected her hugely, and in the best possible way that a teacher could ever hope to be respected. She seemed able to exude the perfect mix of authority and approachability."
Marcella – we wish you the happiest of retirements, and I know that you have every confidence in Mrs Lesley Kane who takes up leadership of the Heads of Year as our new Head of Pastoral Care.
Now, let me introduce you to one new word, and one very special person. The new word is "occhiolism", it's a noun, and it's something that I think many of us have felt without being able to put a name to it, like that feeling we all had as children that we were reliving something we'd done before without knowing that it was called déjà vu.
Occhiolism is the awareness of the smallness of your perspective, by which you couldn't possibly draw any meaningful conclusions about the world or the past or the complexities of culture, because although your life is an epic and unrepeatable anecdote, it still only has a sample size of one, and it may end up being the control for a much wider experiment which is happening in the next room. In other words, each of our own lives might be very little in the grand scheme of things, but our single contribution can still be important. And there is no one whose single contribution is more worthy, no one more occhiolistic, than Lana Douglas, for that is the title of her blog, Occhiolistic - a 17 year-old's safe haven to talk about cancer and what it is like to live with it.
Lana was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in June, and since then she has been blogging her journey to wellness for others to draw inspiration. And inspiring Lana is, not to mention eloquent, articulate and insightful. She writes beautifully. "I am not held back in my adventures!" she blogs, "this is just another adventure to overcome.
I want to remind everyone that life will get in the way. It will screw up our plans, throw curveballs at us and make us click pause, even when we don't want to. It will - there's no two ways about that. But we don't have to let that get us down. If there is one thing I've learned in all of this, it is that life will work itself out. Everything happens for a reason.
I also want to remind everyone that although these curveballs can disappoint us, or leave us feeling lost or overwhelmed - nothing is permanent unless you want it to be. If you don't like something, change it. Look to the future - not the present. Look for happiness in everything and you will find it.
Life is beautifully strange. It might give us an awful hand, but it gives us tactics and skills to make the best of it all. You just have to look past the bump in the road to get to the higher ground."
As we know, young people often get bad press, and unfairly so – for whilst I do agree that a teenager who has never had to vacuum is probably living in one, in my 30 years of teaching I have also seen so many examples of humbling courage and simple kindness that it remains a privilege to work with them.
But whatever you are doing, whatever we are doing, and most importantly whatever they are doing is clearly working and it's the fact that we are working together which is the essential ingredient in the recipe for success! Almost all of our A-level subjects achieved a 100% pass rate which once again puts Carrickfergus Grammar School above the Northern Ireland average for ensuring that pupils gain their post-16 qualifications. In fact our 87 Year 14 pupils between them have amassed something approaching 300 A-levels, with over 30% being at A grade, and more than 60% at B grade or higher. But never mind the statistics; it's each individual pupil who produces them that really counts.
We are delighted for so many of you, and forgive me that I can't mention everyone's name or I'd end up reading out the whole list of prize-winners, but special congratulations must go to Aaron Stevenson who achieved a clean sweep of four top A* grades in Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry and now takes up his place at Queens University Belfast to read Actuarial Science.
Interestingly, despite national concerns about underachieving boys, our top 15 A-level performers comprise 8 boys and 7 girls! Between them they have attained an impressive 46 A* and A grades and they too are looking forward to taking up places at Queens this month: As I've already mentioned, Philip McCullough will study Medicine – it's good to know that my varicose veins will be in good hands, Phillip; Nathan Fugard Dentistry, Head Boy Sam Brodison Pharmacy, and Alix Lee Biomedical Sciences alongside Shattner Joy and Ben McKee (UU).
CGS also holds its own in the stiff competition for places on Law Degrees with Sophie Bell, James Carson, and Head Girl Erin McAllister all entering Queens to take legal degrees with French, Politics and Hispanic Studies respectively. Best wishes also go to Jessica Logan and Sophia Livie as they begin their degrees in Psychology, and to Christopher Beck who has now entered the mysterious world of Theoretical Physics.
Some of our other high achievers have finally chosen to tidy their bedrooms, leave home and study elsewhere in the UK, with Connor Chambers having won a place in the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Kirsty McClean opting for Fashion management and Marketing in the University of Creative Arts in Farnham, whilst both Rachel Hall and Andrew Newbold are heading to Scotland to read Spanish with History and Actuarial Science at the Universities of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt. Meanwhile an Honours Degree course in Theology in the prestigious University of Durham awaits Sophie Grier once she has returned from her Gap Year.
Despite the squeeze on the public sector the worthy professions of service remain attractive to students who see themselves working with and for others, and we wish well to Victoria Porter as she takes up her Degree in Social Work; to Hannah Clements and Sophie Gibbons as they commence Nursing Degrees, and to Abbie Reith and Chelsea Smyth as they begin their courses at Stranmillis College.
Yes, the wide range of opportunities available to Sixth Formers was certainly seized upon by ours, and in addition to all of the above we are delighted to see our senior pupils reach for their ambitions in subjects as diverse as Veterinary Medicine (Aimée Weatherhead), Drama (Joshua Hobson), Politics (Jack Ford), and, as ever, Engineering, with Helen Laird and Joanne Patterson joining Ben Middleton to show that it's not just a man's world.
Our Year 13 group achieved outstanding GCSE results last year and their AS results promise much for 2017 with Simon Gregory, Kyle Hutton, Amy Laird, Christopher Obasi, Emily Wilson and Ian Woodside achieving a staggering 25 top grades between them, followed closely by Amy Laird, Sophie McDowell, Gabrielle Simms, Anna Smyth, Nathan Doherty, Emma Cooper, Matthew Edgar, Molly Long and Alex Sheeran all of whom attained three A grades.
And it seems no time at all since these senior pupils and their parents were dealing with a now familiar Northern Ireland acronym - AQE – still going strong despite the best efforts of our two previous Education Ministers. Yes, the years have passed in a flash and our new Year 8 pupils joined us just at the start of this month and their seven years will pass just as quickly as yours have, but one of the things we said to our new intake is that the secret of success is not talent, and it's not ability. As Abraham Lincoln said, the secret of success is taking your opportunities when they come along.
Witness Leah Thompson, for example, who, with one of our CLC pupils Jordan McCrea from Ulidia Integrated College, was urged by her Accounting teacher Mr Stephen Martin, to open the door when opportunity knocked. They nearly took it off its hinges and are both now taking up apprenticeships with two of the top three accounting firms in the world. Jordan joins four of our former pupils on PricewaterhouseCooper's School Leavers' programme, and Leah has been offered a place with Deloitte in the area of Consulting Technology following a highly demanding 5-stage selection process. Simply marvellous! And hot on their heels are our Deputy Head Boy Joshua Boyd who just last week was offered a place on the same highly competitive programme, and Sophie McFall who has also won a place on PWC's exclusive Business Insight week. So Sophie, Josh, Jordan and Leah could all well be heading for the same success as former pupil Natalie Hall, who is now a BDO Scholar, not to mention Jonathan McMaw who is now on a special BDO Mentoring scheme after being the top performing student in his first year of Accounting at Queens.
Our Year 12 pupils certainly met the challenge thrown down by last year's group by achieving well over 1000 GCSE passes amongst them, with almost half these being at grades A and A*. I am also shamelessly proud to report that once again the number of pupils in Carrickfergus Grammar School who have attained 7 GCSEs including English and Maths sits above the NI Grammar School average, which is a reflection of your support, mums and dads, our pupils' commitment and ability, and their teachers' professionalism.
With 20 of our pupils achieving nothing less than a Grade A in every single subject they took, and our top ten pupils with an astonishing haul of 67 A*s and 33 A grades there were celebrations in manys the home around BT38!
Given the careers prospects available in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) it is essential that they thrive in our schools, and with this year's success rate of 98% we are confident that Carrickfergus Grammar School pupils are in a strong position to meet their future goals, especially when allied to the 100% pass-rate that our Business Studies department has once again achieved. But despite the national emphasis on sciences we are still delighted that the humanities remain strong in the school with History, English Literature, Modern languages, and Music all in rude health, and at GCSE too the boys are more than holding their own with Stef Meucci and Jamie McDowell flying the flag as our top achieving boys, with 11 A*s and 9 As between the two of them.
All of these super grades are, of course, important – our young people are our future and they've made a great start – but once a school becomes an exams factory (and it's sometimes difficult to escape the feeling that we're being driven that way in a world so obsessed by data) – once we forget, that as Lana Douglas pointed out so poignantly, it's our experiences that make us who we are, not just our exam grades, then it's time to go home. Thankfully, the extra-curriculum is alive and well.
Our Formula 1 in Schools team, for example, covered themselves in glory with Team Endeavour, made up of Lauryn Gibb, Chris Hogg, Kyle Hutton, Crystal Milroy and Andrew Thompson winning awards for Best Engineering and Innovation at the regional finals in Ballymena before zipping off to the National Finals in Silverstone in April. From there they were only invited to represent NI in the World Finals in Texas in October but unfortunately the funding needed for this far exceeds our limits so we will just have to declare ourselves world champions by default. Mind you, we will be represented there as one of our team, Kyle Hutton, has shown tremendous initiative by networking with connections he made through the competition and has now been invited to attend the Texas World Finals as a judge no less! Yes, initiative is a lifelong asset, and it is marvellous to see motivated young people such as Kyle, for example, and Leah Forsythe, who both undertook valuable summer laboratory projects at Queens University sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation. Success breeds success.
Meanwhile there is also plenty to blow our trumpet about in the Music department. Yes, we had our usual dizzy round of events and successes – the annual Instrumentalists' Bash for all ages and abilities, whilst at the elite end of the spectrum we had Grainne White crowned NI Young Musician of the Year and now taking up a Sixth Form place in Wells Cathedral School, Somerset; in fact we had two pupils in the top 3 in that competition with Sam Brodison coming a hugely creditable third; we had our Tour of Paris and Picardy; we had numerous broadcasts on national radio; and out of sheer Carrickfergus decency we even let Dalriada school have first place in the Radio Ulster School choir of the Year!
Our Formula 1 team are not the only speed kings, however, as Jack Leathem ran away with the Ulster Schools' 200m title, coming 2nd in the 100 and taking silver in the Irish Athletics championships at Tullamore. In Rugby our U13 boys in particular are showing promise as they won 19 of their 21 games last season, remaining undefeated from the second week in September through to the final of the U14 NEBSSA tournament in March.
In hockey we had 8 full squads and over 100 girls competing every Saturday morning with Claire McIntosh and Caitlin Clarke representing the North East at U15 level. Our first XI girls reached the quarter final of the Ulster Schools Cup before eventually being narrowly defeated by Lurgan College, but I'm reliably told that they put their disappointment behind them on tour to Edinburgh by bringing along some good books and being tucked up in bed each night at 8.00 pm with a nice cup of cocoa.
Finally on the sports front I really have to mention our Year 8 netball team coached by Classroom Assistant Mrs Sharon Shannon who won their league, reached their tournament final losing only on a golden goal, and three of the girls – Katherine Sheeran, Cara Hughes and Ella Johnston being selected for the Regional Development Squad. With senior girl Jenna Ballentine also making the RDA U19 team we can hold our heads high.
There is so much more I could mention that my annual problem is not knowing what to say but what to leave out…pupil mentoring – where pupils support pupils with academic difficulties – work experience with over 200 pupil placements – French trips to Paris and the Spanish Exchange trip – but I'm going to finish with some thanks and some congratulations:
Firstly, an enormous thank you to my Board of Governors without whose many hours of voluntary support I simply could not do my job. I am also saying a reluctant goodbye but sincere thank you to Mrs Roisin White who now steps down as parent governor.
Thank you to the Parents' Association led by Mrs Lisa Cubitt, Mrs Catherine Brown and Mr Mark Edgar who continue to show phenomenal loyalty and commitment to your children and I urge you to support them when you can;
Thank you to Miss Eimear Stewart who said our opening prayer this evening, an outstanding young teacher whom we are just delighted to have in our English department;
Thank you to all staff – teaching and support – who are working under increased levels of personal pressure due to government cuts but who continue to give everything they can to our pupils, sometimes at the cost of their own health;
And last but not least, thank you to my pupils – for when I get overwhelmed and frustrated at the sometimes pressure of my own job your cheery faces and friendly hellos around the corridor never fail to lift me.
So who am I congratulating? A big well done to Mrs Bonita McMaw who has recently been awarded her Masters Degree in Education from Queens University Belfast.
Finally I want to announce a new award being presented for the first time this year - the Peter Martin Award for GCSE Business Studies. This prize has been donated by Peter's parents, Jim and Cathy Martin, in memory of their son Peter who tragically died in a road traffic accident in 2012 – and the first recipient is Chloe Duncan.
Chloe, Peter's parents want you to know that as a role model Peter's story is not just about the usual advice to work hard and make the most of the opportunities this fine school offers you - It is also about being open minded and willing to try different things. Pursue your own dreams and make the most of your own talents. Don't be limited by other peoples' ambitions for you. Seize opportunities as they come. Life rarely goes to plan and you have to be prepared take a gamble on the unforeseen opportunities it will present to you.